Internet freedom under attack
Today, over two thirds of the world’s population lives in a country where internet access is restricted, and repressive regimes are investing more than ever before in censorship and surveillance technology. This is especially true in China, home to both the world’s largest online population and, in many ways, the most censored internet.
Freedom House continues to rank China as the world’s “least-free” country of those assessed in their annual Freedom on the Net Report, due to significant state-ordered censorship of both domestic and foreign internet content and draconian punishment of individuals who express themselves online. Information control has long been a cornerstone of Chinese government policy and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated its firm commitment to extending this approach into cyberspace – spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop what we know today as the Great Firewall while also exporting its censorship model and expertise to like-minded regimes abroad. The effect is to stifle freedom of expression, encourage a culture of self-censorship and undermine fundamental human rights.
Nevertheless, citizens living behind the Great Firewall continue to find ways to circumvent government-imposed blocks demonstrating resilience in the face of intense adversity. As a global internet freedom program funded by U.S. Agency for Global Media, the Open Technology Fund (OTF) acts as a counterweight to this rise in repressive internet control worldwide – supporting those seeking to freely express themselves, even in the world’s most repressive contexts.
How China censors the internet – domestically and abroad
The Chinese government employs a multi-pronged approach in seeking to control the internet.
- Blocking and removing content: Chinese authorities block access to more than 10,000 websites outright while censoring content on countless more, particularly over topics they deem politically sensitive, such as commentary critical of the CCP, foreign media reporting on China, international politics, and specific domestic political events like the Tiananmen Square crackdown, anti-pollution protests, and the #MeToo movement. The CCP accomplishes this by employing a variety of sophisticated technical measures including IP blocking, DNS poisoning, Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), TCP resetting, keyword filtering, and application-level blocking, and their censorship techniques continue to evolve. According to recent Citizen Lab research, images sent over on WeChat, are now being censored in “realtime, automatic” fashion, with censored content changing in reaction to popular current events.
- Codifying censorship into law: Under the CCP’s “information security” policy censorship measures are being turned into vague and overbroad laws that expand the scope of security agencies’ oversight over the internet, obligate companies to monitor and remove content from their platforms, and restrict the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). Many internet companies in China now typically employ staff tasked with constantly monitoring, flagging, and taking down content that risks running aground of the government’s vague restrictions on unacceptable content. This includes the numerous Western technology firms who willingly comply with China’s onerous censorship requirements in order to operate inside the country.
- Repressive surveillance: Through advanced surveillance techniques, the Chinese government monitors citizens’ communications. Popular chat apps like WeChat and Weibo are not only censored but also monitored by the government for discussion of “rumors” or topics otherwise deemed “illegal” by the CCP, such as the mass detention of ethnic minority Uyhgur Muslims in Xinjiang, news about US-China politics, or discussion of protests in Hong Kong, among many others. This kind of repressive surveillance has led to the detention of Tibetans discussing the Dalai Lama’s birthday and ethnic Mongolians speaking out over the detention of their activist colleagues. Individuals developing, distributing, or using circumvention tools are also increasingly targeted by the authorities. The most unrivaled example of China’s oppressive surveillance and overall social control is occurring in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) where the Chinese government has deployed countless security check points, surveillance cameras, and advanced facial recognition technology in order to surveil and persecute Muslim minorities in the region. The government has deployed various tools, like JingWang, BXAQ, and the IJOP app and platform in order to enable their widespread and systematic surveillance.
- Exporting censorship and surveillance technology: In addition to creating one of the most robust domestic censorship regimes in the world, the Chinese government is also aggressively exporting its censorship and surveillance model and technologies abroad. In the last year alone, China has provided technical assistance or training to over 50 countries, including surveillance technologies and trainings on online information management. For example, China’s ZTE Corporation sold a $130 million Deep-packet inspection (DPI) system to Iran and Huawei’s “Safe City” surveillance system has been adopted by hundreds of cities worldwide.
Despite these efforts, citizens continue to develop creative and effective ways to communicate, organize, and share information online. Recently in Hong Kong, protesters demonstrated a keen, increased awareness of the ways in which authorities can monitor their activities, acting to proactively mitigate these threats and stay as safe as possible. Compared to the city’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, protesters used more secure communication tools, paid for subway fares in cash instead of smart cards, disabled their phones’ location-tracking features, and used pre-paid SIM cards to obfuscate their online identity and reduce their digital trace. While this increased level of awareness and adoption of internet freedom tools is a positive sign, the protests have also highlighted the commensurate increase in China’s censorship and surveillance efforts.
Counteracting censorship, supporting internet freedom
To advance internet freedom, OTF supports the research, development, and implementation of technology-centric solutions that enable citizens in China and elsewhere to understand the threats they face, circumvent government-imposed censorship, communicate securely online, and freely express themselves. The censorship and surveillance techniques deployed by the Chinese government are constantly evolving. In this back-and-forth game of censors versus censored, it is crucially important that the tools and projects supported by OTF and others in the internet freedom community are developed in direct response to the real-life situations facing citizens on-the-ground in censored environments – serving their needs directly and combatting censorship as forcefully and accurately as possible.
OTF funds the development of cutting-edge technologies that are novel and nimble in nature. The research we support is real-time, directly informing how best to counteract censorship as its happening and access blocked content. And while understanding how censorship is happening and building effective tools are vital to advancing internet freedom, it is equally important to ensure that these tools end up in the hands of those who need them most: people living in repressive censorship environments under totalitarian rule. To this end, OTF also supports projects that focus on raising awareness about censorship and surveillance, providing digital security support to affected communities, and ensuring tools are both localized and implemented with target audiences.
The people who make up the internet freedom community are deeply committed, creative, and adaptive, and they are willing to go up against an adversary like the CCP to fight for citizens’ fundamental human rights. It is this community of human rights defenders, activists, journalists, civil society actors, and regular citizens alike that OTF is committed to serving through our work.